Nov. 24, 2004 - Deep in the heart of Marana, in a part of Pima County where the flickering glow of the city lies just far enough out of reach, is a place where the Old West is embraced by the new.

Monday night may have its football, but Friday night at the Lazy K Bar Ranch belongs to bull riding. It is here, beneath stadium lights softer than the desert stars, where man and beast compete as one. At least for eight seconds or less they do.

On this particular Friday night, Nov. 19, there is a buzz in the dark evening sky. Each cowboy hat-wearing fan of bull-riding that struts into the dusty arena, nuzzled at the base of the Tucson Mountains, is posed the same question, "You here to see the girl?"

The "girl" is Stephanie Altieri and tonight the 16-year old Marana High School student will be making her bull-riding debut. Without any experience riding a 2,000-pound animal, Altieri is all the talk of this week's Western Skies Rodeo event.

"Half of the school (Marana High School) said I couldn't do it," said Altieri. "I wanted to prove them wrong."

Although the nerve-wracking days and hours too numerous to count leading up to her ride far outnumbered the four seconds she managed to hold on for life, Altieri proved her fellow students wrong.

The blackened bruise on her left foot that she'll bring with her to school on Monday is all the evidence she'll need. Surely left out of her story will be the gut-wrenching moments of solidarity in the chute before the gates were opened; or the fact that the size-nine cowboy boots she was wearing flew off her size-four feet and landed in a different spot than her body did.

Nonetheless Altieri has one thing she can hang her 10-gallon hat on, she's gone where few women have gone before. And after all, that was her goal from the beginning.

"I went to a ride and noticed there weren't any girl riders," said the diminutive high school junior of her inspiration to hop on the back of an angry bull.

Before strapping herself onto the bull, aptly named "Black-Hawk Down," Altieri first had to sign a waiver in the event of an injury. She was equipped with a helmet and a specially designed protective vest to absorb and dissipate the shock of being trampled by a bull.

Injuries suffered within the ring are common for most riders. Each rider has his or her own "war-story" of the broken legs, ankles and arms earned while straddling a livid bull.

Despite being dressed up like she was wearing an oversized Halloween costume, Altieri's best advice to avoid being stomping by a bull may have come from her friend and fellow rider, Leland Sutter, 16.

"Hold on for dear life," said Sutter in the moments before Altieri's ride, "and run when you fall."

The dangers of riding a bull are real, however. Most of the experienced riders advise against Altieri attempting to ride.

"She shouldn't do it," said rider Charles Hixson, before Altieri entered the ring. "If you don't take it seriously you're going to get hurt."

Altieri's ride may have been shorter than the time it takes to utter the phrase "howdy partner" but for the other cowboys who choose to strap themselves to the fuming animals, bull riding isn't just a sport, it's a respite from everyday life and a chance to prove the Old West is alive and well.

Every week some 50 spectators kick back at the Western Skies Rodeo at the Lazy K Bar Ranch to take in the evening's bull riding events. When novice riders such as Altieri aren't stealing the show, serious riders are given noble treatment comparable to that of a professional athlete.

Riders arrive at the Lazy K on word of mouth to attempt to tame any of the 20 bulls regularly kept on the grounds by Western Skies Rodeo owner John Schmid. The proud proprietor created the Friday night bull riding more than a year and a half ago. Since its inception, its popularity has taken off faster than a bull from its chute.

Schmid attributes its success to the 30-some volunteers who lend a hand week after week.

"I may own all this junk," says Schmid as the crowd exits the outdoor arena, "but if it wasn't for these guys out here it would never happen."

Schmid's self-described "family" of volunteers aid with the entire operation, from those taking money at the door and selling hot food straight off the fire of the grill to those handling the bulls in the ring and in the pen.

The help allows for a seamless transition for languid spectators to relax and enjoy their favorite riders doing what they do best.

Riders compete in a six-week competition called the Lazy K Buckle Series. The four riders, dubbed the "Young Guns," competing in the current series willingly pour in $35 a week into a jackpot. But the money isn't the ultimate prize. The winner gets a coveted silver belt buckle the size of a fist. Before Altieri makes the first, and only, ride of her life, the current buckle series is concluded. The winner is Robert Gonzales, who edges out fellow rider Mike Allison to win his first buckle.

Although Gonzales has only been riding for six months, most riders such as Marana resident Allison, 14, begin riding at an early age. Allison began his riding career as a kid, competing in a crowd favorite, sheep riding, better known as Mutton Busting.

Riders start at the Western Skies Rodeo working their way up the many different levels of competition. They start by riding sheep and then move on to novice to steer and finally bull.

Even for the casual rider, like Nic Adams, 19, riding the back of bull is an experience like none other.

"The adrenaline rush," says Adams, "It's better than drugs."

Throughout the year Schmid hauls the Western Skies Rodeo on the road, traveling to all parts of the state putting on professional bull riding and cowboy shows.

Audiences range from the casual fans at local fairs to corporate executives enjoying a private party. Brave fans can meet the bulls and even get their picture taken on the back of one for a small fee.

Back on the homestead of Lazy K Bar Ranch, people come from all over the world to experience the life of a cowboy. The Western Skies Rodeo has been the filming scene for numerous commercials, motion pictures and even ESPN's Great Outdoors show.

Next week, as usual, the show will go on and bull riding will return to the Western Skies Rodeo located at the Lazy K Bar Ranch and with it will be Altieri. She just may not be on a bull.

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